China’s Soulstealers


Kuhn, Philip. “The Roots of Sorcery Fear” p. 94-118 in Kuhn’s “Soulstealers – The Chinese Sorcery Scare of 1768”


In chapter five of his book, Philip Kuhn aims to examine the fears that existed in ancient China that preceded the panic of 1768. He describes the chapter as an exploration of Chinese sorcery in connection with the soulstealing crisis. Kuhn’s thesis is that two distinct fears existed that ensured chaos would stem from both the upper classes and lower classes of society simultaneously. The first fear, experienced by the common man, was that evil sorcerers would steal one’s soul. A natural event such as trauma could also sever the fragile bond between body and soul, but it was the terror of the supernatural that would be the spark for the great panic. The second fear, held by the imperial elites, was that sorcerers would disrupt the bond between the elites and the heavenly powers, weakening or destroying their mandate to rule. Like the popular fears, natural events could also bring about such things, but were not the primary concern.

Kuhn’s argument seeks to explain the coming crisis. These fears are the roots of the crazed witch-hunt and mass lynching in 1768. According to him, there is yet no detailed study of Chinese sorcery, so Kuhn is truly blazing his own trail in this book, rather than arguing against other scholars or building on previous research. Indeed, the reader will note no reference to other modern scholars within this text. Kuhn builds a convincing case from the ground up, detailing Chinese beliefs in the biodynamic powers of sorcerers, rituals of soul-calling, the use of charms and amulets to save one’s soul, and preexisting suspicions that builders, beggars, the clergy, and strangers in general were involved in black magic. He then dives into how these beliefs formed the two structures of fear than drove people to paranoia. He uses direct quotes from Dutch sinologue J. J. M. de Groot, Henri DorÈ, and writings of Chinese charms and counter-charms from the period. The exhaustive evidence presented powerfully supports Kuhn’s argument.

I had some knowledge of Chinese beliefs on the severability of body and soul, as it has been a basis for their religious beliefs involving honoring and worshiping ancestors for centuries. I found the stories at the beginning of the chapter most interesting; they served as an excellent hook and introduction to the topic. He also weaved those stories into his work here and there, making connections I had not considered. I was very interested in the body-soul connection to the well-known belief of yin and yang.

I was most surprised by the concept of involuntary soul-loss. That was unexpected. The idea that a sudden fright could make one’s soul break from its body was fascinating. Heavenly spirits and vengeful ghosts, along with the results of soul-loss (illness, sleeplessness, madness, death, etc.) were also aspects of this topic that captured my attention. The concept of involuntary soul-loss was not the main fear that led to the panic of 1768, but its belief was just as strong as the idea that evil men would steal one’s soul. It served to support and exacerbate the approaching chaos.